The day the music lived
Just in time for the Summer of Love, the Beatles offered a tour de force that changed music and culture
This was our moment, this was our space/ This was a jewel of a time to have graced. –Rod Stewart and Kevin Savigar
Patty Dickens comes by her interest in music naturally. Her father, John Carrico, once headed the music department at the University of Nevada, Reno. Dickens herself spent a quarter century as Temple Sinai’s choir director, on one occasion staging a Beatle-esque celebration of the Jewish Feast of Purim, a.k.a. the Beatles Purinspiel.
Last month, Dickens dove into her record collection and pulled out Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and played it for her three-and-a-half year old grandson. “Sadly, there are a few scratches/bumps on some of the song cuts,” she said. “And the sound quality doesn’t please the ears like the remastered versions. But fun, anyway. … I had pulled it out to listen to ’Within You Without You’ after hearing Anoushka Shankar on the Nightingale stage in March,” Dickens said. “Did Ravi himself play on that track, I wonder?”
Her grandson, Bodhi, was less analytical. “He liked it,” Dickens said. “He thought it was great.” Another generation comes on board.
It was June 1, 1967—50 years ago—that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. From a remove of 50 years, it should be difficult to communicate how momentous that album was, but it’s not. All around are reminders of how deeply this embed has permeated our society. “When I’m Sixty Four” has been used as a theme for Allstate Insurance, probably not an outcome of the album that the members of the band would have relished, but a mark of how much a part of our culture this musical milestone has become.
In the weeks after Sgt. Pepper came out, it became one of the unifying hallmarks of our generation. It was possible to walk down hallways in college dormitories, military barracks, fraternities and sororities and hear its songs coming from every room. It took the English speaking world by storm as no cultural icon ever had or has.Evolution
When the Beatles first came along, they did not exactly take me (I was then at Reno’s Central Junior High) by storm. At the time, military service had drained Elvis of his earthy rock instincts. Rock ’n’ roll consisted of austere tunes lacking in any but the most obvious rhythms, invariably sung by someone named Bobby (Darin, Rydell, Vee) or Jimmy (Darren, Clanton, Jones)—sort of the rock versions of Welk or Mantovani. This bubble gum era lasted too long, and the Beatles’ early work seemed like more of the same. At any rate, it was not far enough removed from that stuff to touch me very deeply, though I liked their style (“Are you going to get a haircut while you’re here?” asked one snotty reporter; “I had one yesterday,” George replied) and found their ballads affecting.
Obviously, not everyone reacted that way. Alan Burnside, who ran UNR’s Experimental College in the 1960s, recalls his response: “I can attest to being thoroughly swept up in Beatlemania at hearing the very first note of ’I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ I was 13 or 14 and only recall being struck by a head-rushing sense that ’This is
The Eastern flavor and the psychedelia grabbed Dickens.
Eventually the Beatles—and other new groups—started to reach me with albums like Revolver and Rubber Soul, which also inspired other artists, as the Beatles themselves were influenced by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Some reacted as I did. Dickens still feels the best quality of the Beatles was, “They evolved.”
Even adults reacted that way. Fred Friendly and Walter Cronkite once wrote, “The lyrics had the same sentimental grammar of Tin Pan Alley—’I want to hold your hand,’ ’She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.’ But by the time of ’Blowing in the Wind’, the ’Sounds of Silence’, and ’Eleanor Rigby’, we were convinced that there was more here than met the ear.”
Sgt. Pepper exploded on the world as no recording had ever done. The constant and repeated playings meant that many listeners would end up purchasing more than one copy that year. Philip Norman wrote, “There are, to this day, thousands of Britons and Americans who can describe exactly where they were and what they were doing at the moment they first listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
And the sensational album said something. In a time when much needed to be said, the lyrics of Sgt. Pepper and of other groups and albums spoke for us against official violence, bureaucracy, insensitivity and state power—and for hope and values. And once Sgt. Pepper was out there as a powerful example, its impact grew geometrically. The rich flowering in music that the Beatles led now multiplied as talented groups proliferated, built on the influences they got from each other, and produced terrific new music, often with powerful messages. It was a fertile, catalytic time, a renaissance the likes of which we have yet to see again. Even if the music stands alone, independent of its messages, it is captivating and challenging. William F. Buckley Jr. once marveled at how the music of that era “is as exacting as Bach’s music.”
One of the delights of looking back on that album and those groups and the era of which they were a part is to see how seriously all of it is now taken (not as seriously as the blue noses and stuffed shirts of the time took it, granted, but still—). When 1950s rock ’n’ roll groups and performers from Little Richard to Little Eva to Little Peggy March entertained, there always seemed to be an unfortunate, unjustified underlying disdain and amusement that these pioneers were still performing.
By contrast, when rock groups from the 1960s entertain, they are treated with respect. In recent years, such icons of the ’60s as John Mayall, Canned Heat, Creedence, and the Guess Who have appeared in this valley, and the tone has been admiration and esteem.
One day in 2002, after playing “A Day in the Life” with its long final arpeggio, Reno DJ Dee Dee Rocket commented, “Probably the most famous chord in the history of rock ’n’ roll. An honor to bring you that tune.” In July 2000 a group of songwriters convened by Mojo named “In My Life” as the greatest song ever written; “Here, There, and Everywhere” placed fourth.
The U.S. record company that distributed the Beatles’ records was an unpopular disgrace, chopping up their early British albums for U.S. audiences and showing ignorance of the meaning of the group or its music, rather the way RCA always handled Elvis. (Capitol once released an album of Beatles’ love songs that included “She’s Leaving Home.”) But if Capitol had tried to cut up Sgt. Pepper, irate fans would have torn down its headquarters. As a totality, it could not be dismantled. The company released it whole.
One thing widely commented upon was the printing of the lyrics on the back of the album cover. It’s common enough now, but I don’t recall anyone who had done such a thing previously. Teens purchased rock lyric magazines like Song Hits and Hit Parader for help deciphering enunciation, but the Beatles provided them free.
If the Beatles were not at Woodstock, they and Sgt. Pepper were well represented by Joe Cocker’s handling of “With a Little Help from My Friends.”Who’s on first?
Many were surprised by Sgt. Pepper, but they should not have been. Revolver had been a unified album, and two songs recorded for Sgt. Pepper—“Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”—had been released as singles and were adjudged so far out of the ordinary in quality and production that some suspected something was up. (The premature release of the two singles meant they did not go into Sgt. Pepper. Their release outside the album also ended the original unified childhood-in-Liverpool theme of the album, the two songs being essential to that theme. Later, during the recording of the “Sgt. Pepper” song, Paul McCartney proposed treating the album as though it were a production of the Lonely Hearts Club Band.)
The whole thing of influences—both on Pepper and by Pepper—is difficult to follow. One of these, days someone should publish a chart of them, both the confirmed and speculative. Folklore told us Pet Sounds was partly inspired by Rubber Soul and would help to inspire Sgt. Pepper and that Smile as an album was abandoned by the Beach Boys because they felt Sgt. Pepper eclipsed it. Try diagramming that sentence. But the claim about Smile is dubious because their record company and publicist Derek Taylor both announced an end to Smile early in May, and Sgt. Pepper was not released until June 1.
Las Vegas arts figure Patrick Gaffey argues the case for the innovative Scottish singer Donovan: “But it was Donovan who showed how the sound studio could be exploited with Sunshine Superman, recorded in December 1965, released in the US in July 1966, not released as a single in the UK until December 1966. … Donovan likes to point out that Sgt. Pepper and Surrealistic Pillow came more than a year later.” Donovan was present by invitation at the orchestral overdub of “A Day In the Life” and appeared in the little-remembered Sgt. Pepper movie starring the Bee Gees.
It’s astounding now to recall what a threat to the culture the Beatles specifically and other groups and the counterculture generally were thought to be in some circles, since today that work is a part of commerce, media, religion.
On Sept. 14, 1970 Vice President Spiro Agnew appeared in Nevada on behalf of Republican U.S. Senate candidate William Raggio. In that speech, Agnew denounced Sgt. Pepper’s “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” on the grounds of the then-common urban myth that the song was a drug tune—L-S-D, get it? According to those with actual, direct knowledge of the song, the title actually came from the name that toddler Julian Lennon gave to a drawing he made. The Federal Communications Commission opened a probe of broadcasters “tending to promote or glorify the use of illegal drugs.”
A Carson City friend of mine had a sizable collection of Beatles memorabilia (the sale of which today would probably put one of her children through college), and when she spent a college year in Paris, her sister back in Nevada got religion and threw it away. Carson City once had one of those ministers, Assembly of God youth pastor Darryl Faulk, who got his teen followers whipped up into burning their record albums. “Most Christians are not aware that secular music is poison,” he said. Local fire officials informed him that burning vinyl releases poisons into the air, so they ended up burning the record album covers and stomping on the records, looking like pagans dancing.
Newsweek, which in the 1980s became the official organ of the drug war by parroting every myth and lie issued by alleged drug experts, in 1967 compared the Beatles to T.S. Eliot and Sgt. Pepper to “The Waste Land.” But the British Broadcasting Corporation banned “A Day In the Life” from its airwaves because of conjecture that the tune was a drug song.
Yet the family-oriented television series Life Goes On later took its title and its theme song from “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” from The Beatles (the “white album”). Other products of that time have been similarly used. “Born to Be Wild” was used in a public service announcement for the Foundation for a Better Life; Joe Cocker’s Woodstock performance became the theme for still another family television series, The Wonder Years; H&R Block used “Taxman” in its commercials; the television series Family Law used “War/What Is It Good For?”; and Ringo Starr was a spokesperson for Charles Schwab. (Oh, well.) These are not necessarily all sources of satisfaction (see Norman Solomon’s commentary on this point at www.mediamonitors.net/solomon58.html), but my point is the degree to which our society has embraced this once-scorned influence.
In a recent Compton Encyclopedia, the Beatles are mentioned in 36 different articles, a far cry from the People’s Encyclopedia patronizing 1965 Yearbook suggestion that since Lennon and McCartney were songwriters, they had something to fall back on if their popularity as singers faded. Nor, as it turned out, did their influence extend only to the English-speaking world. Somehow they touched others, too. (It’s well to remember sometimes that the U.S. aversion to bi- or multi-lingualism is seen as peculiar in many other nations.) Their music was heard on Paris barricades in the ’60s. Their music is banned in Cuba, but a bronze statue of John Lennon was erected in Havana by the National Union of Cuban Artists on the 20th anniversary of his death.Coda
“Worship the music, not the musicians,” Eddie Vedder said. Like many of my friends, I did not long lament the break-up of the Beatles, particularly once it became apparent that the breakup had set loose another explosion of dynamism in music, with George now leading the way. John Lennon's “Imagine” became a personal anthem (and I had thought nothing could displace “Give Peace a Chance” in my affections), and if Paul fell back to syrupy ballads, nothing could annul his contribution to the Beatles.
But while the loss of the Beatles did not grieve me, the pain of the loss of John Lennon took me by surprise. I was astonished by how much it hurt. That this angry and once-violent man could evolve into a nonviolent and eternally young champion of peace was an example that spoke forcefully. John once explained why he wrote “Getting Better”—“It is a diary form of writing. All that ’I used to be cruel to my woman. I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically—any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself, and I hit. I fought men, and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. … I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.”
My friend, former state archives administrator Guy Rocha, once told a Reno interviewer, “I still mourn John. His songs still inspire me, and I believe millions of others now growing older. In the end, all we have to counter despair is hope.”
Decades ago when new sidewalks were laid on a block of Carson City’s main street, someone scratched “BEATLES FOREVER” into the wet cement on one panel, which became something of a touchstone for local rockers who knew of it. Recently, the thrift store at that location added a false front on the store that blocked much of the inscription.
The inscription is blocked, the Beatles are gone, Agnew is forgotten, but Sgt. Pepper and the joyous work product of the musicians of those years lives. “It’s just classic,” Dickens said. “It doesn’t go out of style.”
Another fifty years from now, no one will still be reading me, but they’ll still be listening to and performing Sgt. Pepper and the other jewels that graced that time.